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Overwhelmed Comes In Different Packages

(Names changed)




It is very hard for most of us to understandsomeone else’s experiences. We know how our lives may create difficulties for us and what a hard time we have coping with those experiences. Many of us, in our depression, feel that no one can have it as hard as we do. That attitude limits us in what we can learn and what we can give to others. It may even make us totally blind to what is right in front of us.


Atara had a large family. Most of her children were born very close in age to each other. Before she knew it, it seemed to Atara that she had gone from a newlywed to a mother of eight. She found herself overwhelmed by her rambunctious, healthy children. Don’t get me wrong, Atara loved her husband and her children. As a matter of fact, she was sure that no one else’s children were as smart, cute or precious as her own. She had no regrets about the size of her family or that they were all close in age. She just had great difficulty coping. She was often tired, and couldn’t remember the last time she slept through the night. In general, she loved her life but felt that her situation was very difficult. As a matter of fact, she felt that only people with large families could possibly understand the exhaustion she felt. She was convinced that anyone with fewer children had an easier life.


Yehudis was a bit older then Atara. She had only three older children. In the last two years Yehudis’ husband had been diagnosed with a chronic, incurable disease. His deterioration was swift, and Yehudis was in agony over how to help him and yet leave him his independence. To make matters worse, her husband refused to acknowledge his own deterioration and so, did nothing to help himself. Any care he needed fell to Yehudis to look into and put in place. A few months after his diagnosis, Yehudis’ mother and mother-in-law, both widows, started to show signs of dementia. It became harder and harder for Yehudis to care for them and her husband. (Oh, did I mention, that she was also holding down very responsible job?) Yehudis began to go through the agony of looking for a proper facility for both mothers and, once found, try to convince them that it would be the best and safest place for them. The stress of all that was going on in the home exacerbated Yehudis’ son’s bi-polar condition. In the middle of everything, he had difficulty holding his job, became fearful of leaving the house, had memory lapses and other problems. Just to finish off the family dynamics, Yehudis’ daughter started to date a non Jew.


Rose was a friend to both Yehudis and Atara. Rose was a well spouse. She thought about both woman a great deal. She called Yehudis to check up on her. The first time, Yehudis just reported on how everyone in the family was doing – everyone except herself, that is. Rose told her she was concerned about her and how she was managing. The comment opened a flood gate of tears. It seems no one had ever asked her how she was, or acknowledged what she was going through. She was “the healthy one,” after all. Rose began to direct her support toward Yehudis. She occasionally dropped off flowers for Shabbos or a little gift or mailed a “Thinking of you” card. Yehudis hung on to these objects as if they were her life-line.


The community in which these women lived was young and supportive. Atara’s situation was reflected in many homes, each housing many children and young – sometimes overwhelmed – couples. Fortunately for Atara, she found much verbal support and understanding, if not actual physical help. Her friends easily understood the difficulty of her situation. Not so for Yehudis. Chronic illness was, thank G-d, not frequent among these young families, and so the ordeal of coping with it had not been experienced up close and first hand. Rose would often be asked by people how Yehudis’ family was. How was her husband? Her son? The mothers? Rose told me she cannot recall anyone ever asking about Yehudis. One day when Atara ran into Rose, the conversation turned toward Atara’s family. Rose was told how hard things were for Atara and how just leaving the house was a major event . Atara asked after Yehudis’ family and the health of everyone who was ill. Rose responded and then added that Yehudis was really having a hard time. “Why? Is she ill too?” asked Atara. When she was told she was not ill, Atara couldn’t quit grasp what the matter was.


It is not my purpose in any way to minimize or make light of Atara’s difficulties. I have great respect for parents with large families and can’t even imagine how one gets the cereal box around the table in the morning. What I am trying to illustrate is that everyone’s challenges, though different, should be acknowledged and supported. Even if the experience is foreign to you, think for a minute, what the other person must be going through. Imagine what your emotions would be in the same situation. Acknowledging someone’s plight may be the most supportive act we can do. It can help them beyond what we realize, and give them the strength they need to continue.

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When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

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